All signs are that Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s second term, which began May 20, will continue to see a strengthening of cross-strait economic relations but political talks between the two sides, even if they are held, are unlikely to be productive.
Beijing is concerned that the sense of Taiwanese identity is growing stronger despite improved cross-strait relations. A majority of people on the island now identify themselves as solely Taiwanese rather than as both Chinese and Taiwanese. The percentage of those who identify themselves as solely Chinese is in single digits. President Ma himself is doing what he can to reinforce a sense of Chinese identity. In April, he presided over a ceremony in honor of the Yellow Emperor, the mythical ancestor of Han Chinese, and was immediately excoriated by opposition politicians who feared that he was paving the way for unification with China.
While Beijing is generally pleased with the progress of the last four years, the pace is likely to be slower in the next four years. For one thing, both sides had agreed to tackle easy issues before difficult ones and the easy issues have by and large been resolved.
Beijing has been willing to accommodate Ma during his first term, agreeing to a “diplomatic truce” under which it would not seek to win over countries that recognized Taiwan. This is likely to continue.
The mainland is also willing to accept Ma’s definition of the status quo as one of “no unification, no independence and no use of force.” But Ma’s efforts to gain more “international space” will be an uphill climb. Taiwan has been an observer in the World Health Assembly since 2009, courtesy of Beijing, and now seeks participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization and the UN Convention on Climate Change.
However, Beijing is wary of allowing Taiwan too much international space. For one thing, it does not want to create a situation of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan” on the international stage. Beijing also realizes that the Kuomintang, Ma’s political party, will not remain in power indefinitely and is unwilling to grant benefits that will be enjoyed by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party if it returns to power.
That said, Beijing still appears willing to allow Taiwan some additional space, perhaps by allowing participation not as a government but as an NGO.
Vice Premier Li Keqiang, in a meeting in April with Taiwan’s then Vice President-elect Wu Den-yih at the Boao Forum, said that a solution could be found as long as relations remained stable and peaceful. Wu, at a press conference, said there needed to be goodwill between the two sides before there could be political talks. He added that there had to be a much more cohesive common view in Taiwan.
This is the nub of the issue. Beijing must realize that a consensus within Taiwan is the precondition to any successful political discussions between the two sides. Now that Taiwan is a democracy, it is not possible for the Communist party and the Kuomintang to reach an agreement and impose it on the people of Taiwan.
Beijing should also realize that while its ultimate goal is reunification, Ma’s goal is for the mainland to become democratic. This was evident in his latest inaugural address. Four years ago when he was first sworn in as president, Ma said in his inaugural address that “ethnic Chinese communities around the world have laid their hopes on” the success of the island’s democratic experiment. “By succeeding,” he said, “we can make unparalleled contributions to the democratic development of all ethnic Chinese communities. This responsibility is ours to fulfill.”
It was a transparent assertion that Taiwan’s democratization could influence political development on the mainland, but the newly inaugurated president did not say so outright. This time, however, he was much more open. “Taiwan’s experience in establishing democracy proves that it is not impossible for democratic institutions from abroad to take root in an ethnically Chinese society,” he said last month. “I fervently look forward to the gradual opening up of greater popular participation in the political process on the mainland, along with steady improvement in human rights and the rule of law, and the autonomous development of civil society.”
Ultimately, the mainland and Taiwan’s goals are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it may well be that the only way Beijing’s goal of reunification can be achieved is if, before that, it developed democratic institutions like those on Taiwan.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.